Michigan's pig problem: What to do if you see a smart, tusky animal in Michigan's outdoors

A couple of springs ago, Marty Spaulding went to a parcel of wooded land he owns in Indian River, near Burt and Mullett lakes in Cheboygan County. He was hoping to go morel hunting, but something beat him to it.

"They rooted up my morel mushroom hotbed," he says. It was where he'd collected morels "by the bag-load" in years past. But this time, he found nearly an acre looking "like it had been rototilled."

The culprits, he's sure, were feral swine. 
 
"It's unmistakable. There is nothing subtle about it."

Feral swine are a growing problem in Michigan. But the Michigan DNR and the Michigan Feral Swine Working Group are on its (non-curly) tail.

Wild boar, unlike domestic pigs, have straight tails. They are intelligent and avoid contact with people. But they always let themselves be known when they give in to temptation.

The boar in the photo was tranquilized to fit a satellite radio collar for monitoring its movements and to locate additional feral swine for lethal removal. This particular animal led us to approximately 6 other feral swine that were removed. Photo courtesy Dwayne Etter.
Dwayne Etter, Michigan DNR wildlife specialist, has seen the damage these not-so-pretty piggies can do.

"I've personally seen corn fields that are just flattened," says Etter. "They're not very gentle in the way they go about doing damage. Worldwide, they are considered one of the most destructive invasive species out there."

Russian boar are typically reddish-brown to black and adults ranging from 100 to 300 pounds, but hybrids (a cross between wild boar and domestic pig) can be an array of shades and may tip the scales at 300 pounds or more. 
 
As an invasive species, feral swine are the land version of the Asian carp. They eat everything from farmers' corn to ground-nesting birds and small mammals. They make wallows and root for food, digging up farms, forests, golf courses and property owners' morel plots.

They devour native wildlife's food sources. Their waste pollutes streams and wetlands. They can spread parasites and disease to domestic pigs, wildlife, and humans. They avoid people, but if provoked, are faster than one expects and tend to make use of their tusks.

Last March, Allegan County sheriffs put down a rampaging wild hog that was 600 pounds and had six-inch tusks.

"They are large animals I definitely would not want to mess with," Etter says.

But while some states have insurmountable pig problem, there's still hope for Michigan.

"We're never going to get rid of feral swine in Texas; we're never going to get rid of them in Georgia or Florida. Those states are overrun with them," says Etter. "But in a state like Michigan, with the low densities we have, we still have a chance to get rid of them."

Michigan's Feral Swine Working Group has been at work finding ways to rid the state of these bad piggies. The group, lead by the state's branch of the USDA Wildlife Services and including governmental, environmental and agricultural groups including Michigan's DNR, Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michigan Pork Producers and others, has been studying the problem. Solutions range from giving hunters free rein to shoot hogs on sight to recruiting "Judas pigs" to turn traitor on their own herds.

Hunt for the wild boar

In the south, wild pig problems go back to 16th century Florida, when Spanish explorers thought it'd be a good idea to release boars into the wild to breed and create a future food source in the New World.

But in Michigan, the problem is more recent. According to the DNR's feral swine page, there were no feral swine sightings in Michigan until the 1980s. In 2011, as swine spread to 72 out of Michigan's 83 counties. That year, the DNR declared feral swine an invasive species and banned possession of Russian boars, Sus scrofa (domestic pigs are Sus domesticus).

Since then there has been a number of court cases, appeals, and counter-appeals as some game ranches claimed that because they raised their hogs, they should be considered domestic pigs. An Upper Peninsula judge ordered an injunction stopping the DNR from taking away boars in 2014, but the most recent court rulings in 2015 upheld the ban. 

So how did the swine get here?

"There're a couple of likely sources," Etter says. Before and after it became illegal to possess Russian boars, private game ranches raised them. "They could've escaped."

Also, in other states it's been proven that "people who like to hunt them would release them" into the wild, he says. No one's been caught in the act doing that in Michigan, he says, but it's a possibility.

The counties with the biggest problems now are near the Saginaw Bay: Midland, Gladwin, Arenac, Bay and Saginaw. Feral swine are also becoming a growing problem in the woods of the Western Upper Peninsula, in South Marquette and North Menominee counties, Etter says.

These areas have had game ranches that stocked Russian boar in the past. Ranches have fought the ban in the courts: Bear Mountain Lodge, in the UP's Negaunee Township, was the most recent. The ranch lost a case July 20, and was ordered to destroy their boars by October.

Some, like Superior Game Ranch in Marquette County still advertise boar hunting, while others such as the Trophy Ranch of Ubly, in the Thumb, say they're raising breeds of boar that aren't Russian and so don't fall under the ban.

In the Saginaw Bay area counties, "farmers... are seeing significant damage to their crops," Etter says. And feral swine are a threat to domestic hog farms since one case of the nasty hog virus pseudorabies can ruin a business, he says.

Feral hogs are also a major problem for other private hunting ranch owners who try to grow plots of food for turkey and deer, Etter adds. 
 
"It only takes a night. Hogs move in, destroy the whole crop. Plant it again; same thing happens a couple weeks later."

Hunters who have a concealed pistol license or a hunting license for any species can take all the hogs they see on public land. Land owners and those with permission to hunt on private land can do so without a license.  

The hope is, hunters can help reduce the population. But other states have been banning feral swine hunting.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the concern is that over-enthusiastic boar hunters could do more harm than good, releasing them into the wild to maintain the sport.

"It goes back to the original question, how did they get here?"  

Etter cites the example of Tennessee, where it had been illegal to hunt boar.

"They made it legal, and all of a sudden they had an expansion of pigs across the whole state, much faster than pigs could've done just naturally. They've shown that that is due to hunters picking them up and moving them from one place to another."

Like the Spanish explorers, hunters may ensure good hunting in the years to come by spreading pigs to other areas. The pigs help by having two litters of up to six piglets each a year.

Judas pig

Hunters could also blow the cover of the DNR's Judas pigs.

Funded by a $20 million USDA program to support the national effort to control feral swine, the DNR has been collaring hogs in the pig-plagued Saginaw-area counties.  The collars are tracked via satellite.

Being social animals, the Judas pigs soon find a herd to hang with. Then the DNR arrives.

"You systematically remove the un-collared animals. And that collared animal goes on to find more pigs," Etter says.

It's more effective than hunters taking out one or two pigs at a time, he says. But it requires the DNR and researchers to maintain bait sites, to get herds comfortable in one area.

When hunters start picking off pigs at bait sites, "that scatters the animals," says Etter. Becuase they are so intelligent, "if you shoot one off a bait site, the chances of any animals coming back to that site are very slim."

If you see feral swine

Supported by the USDA's anti-swine efforts, the DNR has been researching and tracking these pigs, on the ground and from the air.

They're also relying on help from citizens. If you've seen feral swine, signs of swine, or if you've succesfully harvested a feral swine, the DNR would like to know. One can use an online report form, or call the USDA Wildlife Services' Michigan office at 517-336-1928. Etter says that they'll send someone to the site within "a day or two" of receiving a report.

Finding these invasive pigs and removing them from Michigan is critical, says Etter.

"All hunters and everyone in Michigan should understand the importance of getting this animal off the landscape while they are at a low enough density that we still have an opportunity to so."

Mark Wedel is a freelance writer in southwest Michigan who's covered a bewildering array of subjects since 1992.

This piece was produced with the assistance of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
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